On 26 October, 37 people from Lakhimpur district of Assam boarded an Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC) bus for a 390-km overnight journey to Guwahati. Most of them were part of a group that was planning to catch a train for Lucknow from Guwahati the next day and would have later proceeded to Varanasi, Mathura and Vrindavan on a pilgrimage. ASTC is a state-owned public transport corporation and runs buses that have a reputation of being safe.
Most of the passengers were asleep while the bus was rushing towards the destination in Guwahati at breakneck speed on the newly laid four-lane National Highway 37A. Suddenly, the driver lost control and the bus fell into a rivulet at Uluoni in Nagaon district. The impact was so strong that the bus was completely mangled. Nine passengers died and 26 were seriously injured. The reputation of ASTC was in tatters.
The injured were admitted in the District Civil Hospital in Nagaon. “The bus crossed a bridge over the Brahmaputra river between Tezpur and Koliabor. Until then, everything was fine and it had been a smooth journey. But just a few minutes later, the driver lost control and the bus fell into a rivulet,” recalls Susma Hazarika, who survived the accident with multiple fractures. “There was blood all around us.”
Horrible as the details of this particular accident are, it was not a solitary incident. Barely a day passes without news of tragic accidents on the national highways cutting across Assam, which also link several other northeastern states with the rest of the country. The number of accidents and the consequent death count is rising every year.
In fact, last year, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) had declared the roads in Assam to be “unsafe”. Data collated by the NCRB revealed that Assam ranked fifth among all the states in the country in terms of the number of deaths caused by road accidents. A more alarming fact was that there was a 50.4 percent increase in the number of deaths in 2013 compared to the previous year. This was far in excess of the national average, which was pegged at 36.4 percent. The figures clearly show that the roads in Assam are becoming more and more unsafe.
Assam has seen an increasing trend of deadly road mishaps at least since 2010. There were 5,828 road accidents across the state that year, which took the lives of 2,256 people. These figures do not include the 3,209 accidents that took place on the national highways in the state, which killed another 1,401 people. This means that a total of 3,657 people lost their lives on the roads and highways in Assam in 2010.
The death toll increased to 3,823 in 2011. The following year, 3,703 people lost their lives in road accidents across the state. The Tarun Gogoi-led state government had then vowed to curb the menace. But nothing really changed on the ground. Instead, the number of road accidents saw a phenomenal growth with 2,441 people losing their lives in 7,211 incidents in 2013. That year, another 3,718 accidents took place on the national highways, resulting in 1,463 deaths. Thus, a total of 3,904 people died on the roads and highways in Assam in 2013. Clearly, the government’s promises had come to naught.
Most of the accidents on the national highways involved overnight buses, while two-wheelers were involved in the majority of the accidents on the other roads.
The other states in the Northeast such as Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura, too, have witnessed a worrying rise in the number of deaths caused by road accidents.
Every time a big accident is reported in Assam, fingers are invariably pointed at the state government and it is accused of being indifferent to the menace. The chief minister, on his part, announces a probe and payment of compensation to the kin of the deceased and to those who are injured. The same pattern was repeated after the 26 October accident in Nagaon district. Gogoi asked the commissioner-secretary of the ASTC to conduct an investigation into the incident and announced ex-gratia payments to the kin of those who were killed, besides compensation to the injured.
These routine official responses, however, failed to impress many people who held the government squarely responsible for the abnormally high number of road accidents. “The government is shockingly indifferent to the menace of road accidents,” says Professor Deben Dutta, a Guwahati-based academician. “It has been negligent in enforcing certain basic norms that could have gone a long way in minimising the number of accidents. It is turning a blind eye to the rampant flouting of various provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. The government gives priority to ensuring safety and security on the highways only when there is some VIP movement.”
According to sources in the Assam Police, 1,074 people have lost their lives in road accidents since 2010 in Guwahati alone. “There is no doubt that there has been an escalation in the number of fatal road accidents,” says Pranab Jyoti Goswami, Superintendent of Police (Traffic), Guwahati. “There has been a rise in cases of drivers exceeding the speed limit. We are also seeing more hit-and-run cases.”
Goswami believes that driving under the influence of alcohol is a major cause of accidents. He also points out that the growing number of vehicles on the roads is another contributing factor. “At least 160 new vehicles are added every day to the already high number on the city roads,” he says. “The poor quality of street lighting could be another factor leading to the spurt in accidents. The government is trying its best. It has set up a road safety team to improve the situation.”
The Assam Police had set up an expert committee last year to address the road safety issue. The committee came up with a few recommendations such as more scientific design of the road network, improved signage on the national highways and better lighting for roads and highways. Unfortunately, none of the recommendations have been implemented so far. One silver lining is that the state has recently procured traffic interceptor vehicles and speed-checking gadgets.
“There is always a temptation to drive at high speeds on the four-lane highways and there is usually no one to stop you from doing so,” says Sanjay Bora, who lives in Guwahati and drives an overnight bus. “There are no lights and road signs on large stretches of the national highways. Most of the accidents occur due to the lack of basic safety measures, monitoring and punitive actions.”
The menace of road accidents could soon become part of the political discourse in the state if the Opposition uses it as ammo against the Gogoi government. Aminul Islam, organising secretary of the AIUDF, warns that the party will rake up the issue in the coming days. “A lot of money is being poured into the development of roads and highways in the state. The number of vehicles is increasing every day. Had the government been serious about good governance, they would have put in place an effective monitoring mechanism. Instead, it has been indifferent to the issue of road safety,” he says.